First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2010, Volume 17, #7
Written by John Metzger
Mon July 12, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
Each year, Willie Nelson releases so many albums and takes such a wide array of stylistic diversions that it always is big news whenever he returns to tackling dyed-in-the-wool country fare. Much as its rudimentary title suggests, his latest endeavor Country Music is a full-blown exploration of roots-oriented constructs.
Like many of Nelson’s endeavors, however, Country Music doesn’t fit squarely into a definitive box. Rather, there are as many nods to Western swing, bluegrass, and honky-tonk as there are to gospel, blues, and jazz. On several occasions, hints of The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo sweep through the affair. Taken in full, of course, these are all foundations and offshoots of country music. The thing that makes the outing work, however, is how deftly Nelson ties the entire set together with his affable personality, distinguished vocals, and easy-going charm.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, Country Music manages to retain a nostalgic ambience without seeming to be tied to either a particular time or place. Tracing an arc from Nashville to Texas, the album begins, appropriately enough, with a reconfigured rendition of Nelson’s first single Man with the Blues. Immediately thereafter, it mutates into a magnificent waltz that glides through a small sampling of Americana classics. Filled with songs that long ago became the staples of country fairs and moonshine-soaked gatherings that celebrate either the arrival of summer or the fall harvest — Merle Travis’ Dark as a Dungeon, Doc Watson’s Freight Train Boogie, and Hank Williams’ House of Gold, among them — Country Music feels both comfortable and inspired.
With an old-fashioned sense of timing, no drums were utilized on any of Country Music’s tracks. Instead, the songs obtain their rhythmic propulsion from the largely acoustic frameworks that Burnett concocted for the affair. Given Nashville’s tendency to toughen up its albums with unnecessary accouterments, Country Music feels like a coup for the various musicians who were involved in the project. Despite its casual outlook, the effort still manages to seethe with indisputable intensity.
At times, Burnett dials up the murkiness of his arrangements just enough to add a layer of darkness to several of Country Music’s selections. Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down determinedly pushes forward through its ominous backdrop, while Nobody’s Fault But Mine is cloaked in harrowing regret. For the most part, however, Burnett maintains the crisp clarity of the instrumentation, allowing the hall-of-fame cast that he assembled for the affair — including bass player Dennis Crouch, guitarist Buddy Miller, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, and fiddler Stuart Duncan — to surround and ultimately support Nelson’s distinctive style of singing.
Throughout his career, Nelson repeatedly has pushed aside tradition in order to embrace the wide, open landscape of the world at large. Every now and then, however, he returns to his roots, using his position of prominence to highlight the works of Bob Wills, Ray Price, Lefty Frizell, and countless other peers and influences whom he feels deserve more attention than they typically receive. With this in mind, Country Music joyfully joins his other recent forays, like Last of the Breed and You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, in keeping the heart and soul of the American spirit alive.
Of Further Interest...
Country Music is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2010 The Music Box